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Verneri Pohjola



by Ian Mann

February 16, 2015


"Bullhorn" represents a major statement from Verneri Pohjola. The writing displays an admirable breadth and maturity and the playing is excellent throughout.

Verneri Pohjola


(Edition Records EDN 1056)

The Finnish trumpeter and composer Verneri Pohjola signed for Edition Records in February 2014 and now, a year on, the label has released “Bullhorn”, the first instalment of a three album deal. Pohjola joins a strong Finnish contingent at Edition which is also home to pianist Alexi Tuomarila’s trio and the band Oddarrang, led by drummer Olavi Louhivuori. Both these acts have released acclaimed début albums for the label and Pohjola has followed suit with “Bullhorn”, an impressive recording featuring his working quartet plus judicious appearances from a small coterie of guest musicians.

Prior to his move to Edition Pohjola had impressed the international jazz audience with two excellent albums for the Munich based ACT label. The first of these, “Aurora”, was an ambitious large ensemble recording initially released on a small Finnish independent label before being picked up on by ACT. It garnered rave reviews, not least from myself, and from John Fordham writing for The Guardian. The follow up ,“Ancient History” (2012), featured the trumpeter in a more pared down setting with his then quartet on a programme of Pohjola originals plus an arrangement of Bjork’s “Hyperballad”.

“Bullhorn” features an all original programme that successfully combines something of the scope and ambition of “Aurora” with the warmth and intimacy of “Ancient History”. The album features the leader alongside long term associates Aki Rissanen (piano) and Antti Lotjonen (bass) with Teppo Makynen replacing previous incumbent Joonas Riippa at the drums.Both Lotjonen and Makynen are also members of the Helsinki based Five Corners Quintet. Guest appearances come from Jussi Kannaste (tenor saxophone), Ilmari Pohjola (trombone) and cellist Ilda-Vilhelmiina Laine.

Pohjola is the son of the late Finnish bass legend Pekka Pohjola whose name may be familiar to British music fans of a certain vintage (i.e. mine) for his album “The Magpie”, released on the then fledgling and progressive Virgin label in the early 70s. Pekka was still around to guest briefly on “Aurora” bur died shortly before its release.

Verneri Pohjola’s youthful appearance belies his maturity. At 36 he’s a fully formed musician and composer and “Bullhorn”, plus its two ACT predecessors, represent coherent and convincing artistic statements. Pohjola says of “Bullhorn”; “It has the intimate sounds and lyricism in improvised passages that I love, but also the rough energy and emphasis on the compositions - everything I want to express in my music. In my opinion this is the most adult thing I’ve ever musically achieved”.

That maturity is immediately apparent on the opening “Another Day”, a floatingly lyrical piece that introduces Pohjola’s majestic, Miles like trumpet tone and includes some wonderfully empathic, understated support from his colleagues with newcomer Makynen sounding completely at home behind the kit. But Pohjola’s music is more than merely pretty, as his solo evolves and becomes more impassioned he introduces something of the “rough energy” of which he speaks. Pianist Rissanen is the other featured soloist, a highly gifted player who also leads his own trio featuring an unusual piano / sax / drums configuration and whose excellent 2013 album “Aleatoric” is reviewed elsewhere on this site.   

The title and the opening bars of the celebratory “Girls Of Costa Rica” pay homage to Miles Davis’  classic “Filles de Kilimanjaro”. But Pohjola is no Davis clone and he also distances himself from of the usual “Nordic” jazz clichés and no more so than here. Centred around Lotjonen’s insistent and memorable bass line (it’s a real ear-worm) the piece includes fluent solos from Pohjola on trumpet and guest Kannaste on tenor sax, the pair later combining to good effect.   

The brooding “He Sleeps, I Keep Watch” presents another side of Pohjola as his trumpet whispers then cries above the atmospheric mallet rumbles and other subtle percussive sounds generated by the excellent Makynen. There’s a sombre, almost hymn like feel to the piece as Pohjola moves away from the jazz canon to embrace church and folk influences. The echoing trumpet sound ensures that the music sounds more obviously “Nordic” than anything that has preceded it. 

The title track begins with the sound of Makynen’s drums, his floating grooves soon joined by Lotjonen’s anchoring bass while Rissanen does much of his early work under the lid. Pohjola’s solo builds slowly and elegantly but eventually he finds himself soaring above the groove before handing over to Rissanen for a feverish piano solo. This track has been described as “anthemic” but like much of Pohjola’s output it’s a multi faceted piece of work that ranges widely during the course of its seven and a half minutes. 

The following “In La Borie” is rather more straight forward, a gorgeous waltz time ballad that features Pohjola and Rissanen at their most lyrical with the trumpeter adopting a plaintive, breathy, whispering tone. Lotjonen and Makynen offer typically sympathetic support, the drummer predominately playing with brushes.

The brief “This One Is For You” represents a short excursion into the world of Nordic noir with sombre, brooding trumpet whispers, cries and echoes plus Makynen’s subtle but brilliantly evocative drumming, all mallet rumbles, cymbal shimmers and almost impossibly small percussive details.

“Nanomachines” is a complete contrast, a piece that sounds positively angry with its urgent, racing Ornette Coleman inspired horn lines. There’s a tight, focussed, almost claustrophobic energy about this piece with Pohjola displaying a blistering eloquence on his solo. Kannaste also returns to the fray with a needling tenor solo underscored by piano, bass and Makynen’s ever evolving drum commentary.

On “Ouroboros” the mood is more contemplative with long, plaintive trumpet melody lines and superbly sensitive support from piano, drums and bass. One can almost hear the musicians thinking. Rissanen adds a thoughtful, lyrical solo and there’s a short passage of bass and drum dialogue before the crystalline wail of Pohjola’s trumpet returns.

“Cold Blooded” is almost song like in construction with majestic soaring passages and with the leader’s blazing solo complemented by lyrical flourishes from Rissanen.

Similar qualities inform “The End Is Nigh” which begins in gently lyrical fashion but builds to a kind of widescreen magnificence thanks to the addition of Ilmari Pohjola’s trombone which adds an astonishing amount of depth to the ensemble sound. Along the way we hear a flowingly lyrical solo from Rissanen and a similarly fluent and elegant feature for Verneri on trumpet.

“Bullhorn” represents a major statement from Verneri Pohjola. The writing displays an admirable breadth and maturity and the playing is excellent throughout. Miles Davis, Tomasz Stanko, Dave Douglas and Ambrose Akinmusire have all been mentioned as influences upon Pohjola’s sound but this album suggests that he is very much his own man, a gifted and imaginative soloist with the ability to vary his approach at will, often within the course of the same song or solo. Pohjola can switch from lyrical to strident at will but manages to make it all sound perfectly natural and organic.

I was also highly impressed with new drummer Teppo Makynen who makes a huge contribution to the album’s success with his intelligent, colourful and sympathetic playing. If I have a quibble it’s that we don’t really hear enough of Rissanen, this is an album that very much focuses on Pohjola as the principal soloist. 

When Pohjola moved to Edition the Norwegian saxophonist Marius Neset moved the other way. After three successful Edition albums he signed to ACT, it’s all a bit like a swap deal in football just before the transfer window closes. Seriously though, Edition will be hoping that “Bullhorn” can make the same kind of impression as Neset’s Edition début “Golden Xplosion” did at the time of its release. Musically there’s no reason why not, “Bullhorn” an excellent album that has already gained great reviews from the British jazz press.Incidentally Neset and Pohjola worked together as members of the ACT “super group” The Baltic Gang led by violinist Adam Baldych.

However according to Pohjola’s website there doesn’t seem to be any sign of him visiting the UK any time soon. I was lucky enough to see Pohjola, Rissanen, Lotjonen and Riippa appear at the 2013 London Jazz Festival, a free early evening performance at the Front Room at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Mainly playing music from “Ancient History” I thought they were superb but would now relish the opportunity of seeing the current quartet in the more formal setting of an arts centre or small concert venue. Let’s hope that Edition are able to get the quartet over for a proper UK tour (something they did with Neset) before too long and really get behind what deserves to become a breakthrough album with regard to British audiences. 

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